Balancing Act

Feb. 1, 2015
Gelina Aquilina is an auto tech student, single mom and ambitious service writer—and has no plans of slowing down

Gelina Aquilina is a 33-year-old with an ambitious schedule. As a soon-to-be-graduating student in the automotive technology program at Skyline College in San Bruno, Calif., Aquilina works half days as a service writer at Helming’s Auto Repair in Mountain View, Calif., an hour south of San Francisco. After her shift, she then commutes 35 miles in Bay Area traffic to her afternoon classes, before returning home to spend time with her young daughter. 

If that wasn’t enough, she makes time to volunteer for, a website that provides free automotive advice to women; she is president of the school’s female-focused Heart Wrenchers Auto Club; and also tutors fellow students at her school. 

Rather than looking ahead to graduation, Aquilina is focused on digging in to her job full time after graduation, learning as much as she can about the industry, starting her own build project and proving that the auto repair industry is no longer just a man’s world.  

“Once I started service writing, I realized that I get to teach people every single day.”

My schedule is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know how I have time to think. I wake up really early and I drive my 35 miles, go to the gym, get ready for work at the gym and go to work. I commute back 35 miles to go to school until 6 o’clock every day except Friday. 

When I’m done with school I pick up my daughter, and we do our nightly routine. She also has swimming lessons, doctors appointments and playdates. 

Sometimes I do side jobs at night, too. I always help my friends and their moms and aunts and sisters—all kinds of women who need help with their cars. I am also the president of the Heart Wrenchers Auto Club that does free car repairs for low-income people in the area and teaches young women basic automotive maintenance. I host a meeting for the girls every other week to organize events and do recruiting for the club. 

Considering that I’m only at my shop until 12:30 p.m. on most days, I have to cram as much as I can into that time. I get there early. We have a before-hours drop box, so I immediately write up whatever’s there so our mechanics can get started right away. 

I also cross-check what I missed from the afternoon before since I wasn’t there, so I familiarize myself with what orders I missed, make sure parts that came in are added to the work orders and make sure everything’s all set just in case the customer comes to pick up and I’m in a scramble—that way it’s already done. 

Sometimes I try to write up appointments ahead of time before customers get here. That involves looking up their vehicle history and seeing what’s due, checking ALLDATA for their maintenance schedule and seeing what I can recommend to a customer. 

I leave my job midday to go to school, which is a bummer for everybody, because I can’t see things through to the end of the day. Both our co-owners, Mike and Leane Reelfs can do my job. Leane usually covers for me in the afternoon.

It’s a combination effort between the three of us, but I try as hard as I can to get as much done for them before I go. I don’t just leave work, though. Leane and I text back and forth throughout the afternoon about customer pickups and parts orders, so I’m still involved once I leave for the day.

I’m really busy all the time, but I love what I do.

After working at a local Jiffy Lube, my current bosses actually found me. Leane networked with my mentor at school, ASE-certified technician Julia Johnson, and she reached out and said she wanted a technical woman at her front desk. 

I was hesitant because I wasn’t going to be getting my hands dirty as a service writer, nor do I think I ever will at this shop, which is something I’ve come to deal with. 

It’s also 35 miles away from my home, so it’s a 70-mile drive every day. Bay Area traffic is horrible, and some of my customers think I’m crazy, but working for a partially woman-owned shop is amazing. The mechanics here are great and honest, it’s a reliable shop, and it’s totally worth the commute. All of my concerns went away, and I absolutely love my job. 

I was hesitant because my goals at that point were different than they are now. When I started, I really wanted to teach automotive service and thought I needed hands-on experience. But once I started service writing, I realized that I get to teach people every single day. 

I’m teaching them about why their car needs repairs and why they should go ahead with certain projects, so I realized that it was right in line with where my goals were. I see what some of the technicians I work with have to go through, and it’s really hard work. 

Doing hands-on repairs is something that I can do, and I would like to do in the future on the side to make money. I’m considering building my own project truck, as a fun outlet for what I’ve learned in school. 

A lot of our customers are returning customers, so I’m able to look up the history on the vehicle.  That’s crucial to what I do. If a car has been here before, it’s easy to see if it has had routine repairs performed or if there are any maintenance issues. 

I rely on ALLDATA to look up the hourly rates and pricing. Sometimes I do road tests to diagnose with the help of the customer complaints. This allows me to give our customers a detailed estimate right when they walk in. Doing that from the moment they walk in makes it much easier to sell the job.

I’m not a typical service writer that just wants to sell something to make commission. I build relationships with customers. We are careful to make sure to tell our customers if they don’t need something—like not needing brakes until the winter, or that their battery will likely last until spring. That allows me to help them prioritize and recommend they only do the repairs that are currently needed. This makes them happy, and keeps our customers coming back. 

You see patterns with people. With time, I’ve learned to tell who’s willing to invest in their vehicle and who’s not, who maintains their vehicles on schedule and who wants to sit and wait for their car. That involves knowing the specifics of their cars and, whenever possible, ordering parts ahead of time. 

You can’t order parts for everybody in advance, because there are a lot of flakes out there, but building relationships with people, knowing that they’re going to come in, knowing exactly what they need, making notes and getting those parts here is really important to people. 

I’m a single mom, and I know what it’s like to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. There are a lot of parents that have to drop their kids off and come in for a quick repair, and need us to get them back on the road by three o’clock so they can pick the kids back up. 

You have to go to each end of the spectrum dealing with customers, and have to be all over the board. 

There is a lot more to this job than some people might think. You need to be computer literate, really good at the English language, know all the vocabulary, and be good at  both typing and writing. 

Some people walk in and see a girl at the front desk and immediately think, “Oh, she must just be the receptionist.” That’s something that I have to let go and get over. 

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